Marco Polo and Silk
Venetian Marco Polo’s famous account of his travels along the Silk Road to China and his subsequent diplomatic missions in the service of the Emperor Kublai Khan remained for several centuries the most comprehensive and authoritative source of information about China available in Europe.
After circulating for centuries in manuscript form, the account was first printed in Nuremberg in 1477. Christopher Columbus owned a copy of the first Latin edition, published in 1485. The first Italian edition was printed in Venice in 1495. The RBLA has an Italian pocket-size edition printed in Venice in 1602.
This image appears in Vermis Sericus by Jan van der Straat and depicts the arrival in around AD 550 of two monks at the Byzantine Emperor Justinian's court with silkworm eggs smuggled from China. The Byzantine church and state created imperial workshops, monopolizing production and keeping the secret to themselves. This allowed a silk industry to be established in the Middle East, undercutting the market for ordinary-grade Chinese silk.
Flemish Renaissance artist Jan van der Straat (1523-1605) worked for most of his life in Italy where he was employed by Cosimo de'Medici. The engravers of the RBLA copy of Vermis Sericus (Antwerp, early sixteenth century) were trained by Peter Paul Rubens.